Kevin Labanc

Sharks' refusal to engage with Blues, take penalties fuels Game 1 win

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AP

Sharks' refusal to engage with Blues, take penalties fuels Game 1 win

SAN JOSE -- Kevin Labanc said the day before the Western Conference final opener that he and his Sharks teammates expected a physical series from the opposing Blues.

And after being outhit by St. Louis 41-35 on Saturday night on SAP Center, the San Jose winger doubled down on that statement.

"We were ready for that," Labanc said after the Sharks' 6-3 win to start the best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series. "They came out hard, and they were heavy -- and we know that's not the end."

St. Louis' physicality only increased as the game went on and San Jose took a more commanding lead, and it dissolved into all-out fighting toward the end. The Sharks know the big hits only will continue as the series progresses, with Game 2 scheduled for Monday night at SAP.

The best thing San Jose can do is not let its response to St. Louis' hits turn into trips to the penalty box.

"We just have to really stay composed and not take stupid penalties after the whistle," Labanc said. "It's a good start to the new series for us."

He isn't wrong. Despite being knocked around quite a bit by the Blues, the Sharks only had one penalty -- a second-period delay-of-game call on Melker Karlsson -- until the final few minutes of the game. St. Louis tried engaging San Jose several times but didn't get much of a reaction until Brenden Dillon and Barclay Goodrow hopped into a scuffle with Oskar Sundqvist and Robert Bortuzzo with 2:05 left to play.

The choice to not engage is wise, given that the Sharks averaged 11:31 penalty minutes per game in 15 playoff contests and only got their penalty kill squared away part way through their second-round series against the Colorado Avalanche.

[RELATED: Meier's emergence on full display in Sharks' Game 1 win]

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told reporters after the game that his team isn't looking to engage in any type of extracurriculars that could give momentum back to the Blues.

"We're going to play whistle to whistle the whole series," DeBoer said. "If they want to take penalties like that, or penalties like at the end of the game, we'll let the refs take care of that. They told us they will, and we expect that they will."

Sharks expecting to play more physical series in West final vs. Blues

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USATSI

Sharks expecting to play more physical series in West final vs. Blues

SAN JOSE – In the few days leading up to the Western Conference final between the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues, it may seem easy to compare this battle to the when the two teams faced off under similar circumstances in 2016. 

But while there are some similar players in both lineups, we probably shouldn’t expect a repeat of that conference final battle from a few years ago.

“It’s tough to compare teams two years later, or three years later,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told the media after Friday’s morning skate. “I know the core of both teams is probably the same. But you’ve got a different coach on the other side.”

Sure, personnel changes mean we won't see the war of words between coaches like in 2016 between DeBoer and Ken Hitchcock. Or get an encore of former Blues captain David Backes tugging on Joe Thornton’s beard – although another player could try.

But there is one thing the Sharks are definitely anticipating from their third-round opponent – a much more physical series than the one they just played against the speedy Colorado Avalanche.

“I think with St. Louis, it’s going to be a little more like the Vegas series,” Sharks’ winger Kevin Labanc admitted. “More grit, fighting, kind of a harder, heavier game. But we know how to play them, we know how to handle them. We’ve just got to make sure we’re not giving them anything in our own end.”

San Jose is already familiar with the task of getting around St. Louis’ heavy offense and two-way defense. (Blueliner and captain Alex Pietrangelo is tied for first on the team with 11 points through the Blues’ first two playoff series.) The Sharks will have a new challenge, however, facing rookie netminder Jordan Binnington, who matches Sharks goalie Martin Jones with eight wins through these playoffs.

“I think ever since he was called up he’s been a real key factor for them,” Labanc said. “We just have to make sure we’re in his eyes and doing the little things right. The goals will come, we just have to be good defensively and make sure we’re not turning the puck over.”

DeBoer said it isn’t just Binnington making an impact for the Blues, but other young players such as forward Robert Thomas who have positively contributed to St. Louis arsenal.

“I think they’ve done a really good job integrating some of their young guys – impact young guys into their lineup,” DeBoer said. 

Even with some new players in the fold, San Jose remains ready for a more physical matchup and takes pride in being able to pivot from playing a more speed-and-skill oriented Colorado team.

“Our team is built where we have many layers, where we can play a physical series or we can play a more skilled series as well,” Joe Pavelski said. “But there is a certain way we want to play the game and we want to dictate the game in certain areas. St. Louis is a good team and they are physical.”

[RELATED: Sharks, Giants and the art of winning elimination games]

There is one element San Jose feels will work in its favor in the upcoming best-of-seven series. Unlike the 2016 series which started in St. Louis, San Jose has home-ice advantage and didn’t have to do any traveling after finishing up its seven-game stint against Colorado on Wednesday.

“That’s huge,” Labanc said about starting the series in San Jose. “Home-ice advantage, it’s awesome here. We just worked so hard all season to obtain that. It just makes the biggest difference. The past two Game 7 games in each series were unbelievable for us, and just having your home crowd cheering for you gives us that little bit of extra energy and that extra momentum.”

Sharks' third line sets tone in convincing Game 1 win over Avalanche

Sharks' third line sets tone in convincing Game 1 win over Avalanche

SAN JOSE – Between the emotional toll taken by a tough first-round series and the physical one extracted by injuries, the Sharks needed a few players to rise to the occasion in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoff second-round series with the Colorado Avalanche on Friday.

Joe Thornton’s line answered that call in a 5-2 win, as San Jose took a 1-0 series lead. 

“Jumbo, he likes to think of us as the difference-makers,” said Kevin Labanc, one of Thornton's linemates. “That’s the way we want to play. It’s still a long playoffs and guys are going to get injured. So we have to be ready.”

Ready they were with a second-period scoring surge that gave San Jose a nice cushion on the scoreboard. Thornton, Labanc and fellow third-liner Marcus Sorensen scored or assisted on all three of the Sharks' second-period goals, giving the Sharks a much-needed burst of energy midway through the game. 

The well-rested Avs jumped on the tired Sharks quickly in the first period, scoring just 2:10 in. But as the game went on, Thornton’s line answered by taking away Colorado’s offensive chances and turning them into rushes in the opposite direction.

“We just out-worked them,” Labanc said. “We were hard, we were heavier. We were winning our battles in the o-zone and in the d-zone.”

Labanc, who was coming off an impressive four-point night in Game 7 of the first round against the Vegas Golden Knights, added to his postseason highlight reel when he grabbed a pass from defenseman Brent Burns in the second period Friday. He deftly maneuvered the puck between Avalanche All-Star Mikko Rantanen's legs before depositing the goal that gave the Sharks a 3-2 lead -- their first of the evening.

“What a beauty,” Thornton gushed afterward when asked about Labanc’s goal. “Just a beautiful goal. He found some confidence from Game 7 and continued tonight. World-class goal, what can I say.”

That’s big praise from the guy who notched his 100th career playoff assist Friday, a feat only 23 NHLers before him have ever reached. Thornton also notched a goal himself in the second period when Sorensen made a slick saucer pass to set him up for a wrist shot on an odd-man rush. 

“That’s all Marcus,” Thornton complimented. “Great little saucer pass over and I just had to hit the net there. He’s been skating real well and he just hasn’t been getting rewarded.”

Labanc had a front-row seat watching his linemates connect for the goal.

“Marcus, he was so tired, it was such a long shift for him,” he recalled. “But he got it through and Jumbo made a good shot. It got the whole rink going.”

[RELATED: Sharks troll Vegas after killing extended penalty vs. Avs in Game 1]

The Sharks fed off the home crowd as the game went on, playing more energetically after fighting off elimination in three straight first-round games. That included two consecutive overtime games to close out the seres with Vegas, and the Sharks' start Friday was expectedly sluggish. 

“I think we were a little bit tired, it was a long series with Vegas,” Labanc admitted. “But I think we got going as the game went on and once we did, we were hard to play against.”

If they can keep being that hard to play against, the Avalanche will have a hard time creating chances in this series.

“We’ve just got to stick with it and keep that momentum going for us in the second game,” Labanc said.